Non Erudiam

DISCLAIMER: What follows are the opinions, assumptions, and experiences of a former teacher. At no point do I claim that these experiences are absolutely representative of the totality of what teaching is, or can be. Any individual teacher’s experience will depend very heavily on their school/school leaders/colleagues/personal choices.


I was both thrilled and concerned to see this article in the papers today: 5000 teachers leave service over five years.

So, because legal writing is apparently habit-forming, let’s look at some of the facts/claims before doing any analysis.

Facts, Figures, Claims

  1. about 3% of the total teaching force resigns every year
    • with 33k or so teachers, that’s about 1000 teachers a year
    • MOE claims that the teaching force is ‘stable’
  2. two-thirds of the teachers interviewed said that they left because of excessive administrative workloads
    • MOE claims that the top three reasons for leaving were: childcare, family considerations, desire for another job
  3. The reasons canvassed in the report include: administrative workload, long hours, huge class sizes, overly demanding parents
    • the response of the government (MP Denise Phua, MOE itself) was to look into reducing marking load and increasing pay

Some discussion points

In relation to (1):
Let’s think about who the 1000 teachers a year are, and what MOE means by ‘stable’.

Who: teachers have to go through NIE, and are usually bonded for a period from 3 to 6 years depending on what sort of funding MOE provided them. Assuming that most people would wait out their bond before quitting, this means that most of the 1000 or so are teachers with a certain degree of experience. In my experience, a teacher of 5-6 years’ experience is generally within consideration for various middle-management/leadership positions.

What: I’m assuming that when MOE says the numbers are ‘stable’, they mean that on a purely numerical basis, we’re hiring as many teachers as leave, within certain margins of error. So if 1000 teachers leave, 1000 are hired. Is that true, though? In 2015, only 800 were hired. Which is a far cry from the huge hiring drive that saw 2000-3000 teachers a year being hired back in the day. If this downward trend of hiring continues, paired with the rising trend of people leaving the service, how long are the numbers going to be stable?

Granted, we should also factor in the falling birthrate, which has seen the closing/collapsing of schools, which presumably also means that fewer teachers are going to be required to meet demand. But is that also true? Parents and teachers alike have been calling for reducing the class-size for a long time, but the closure of schools etc seems to suggest that MOE would rather maintain class-sizes and shrink the teaching force, instead of maintaining the same number of teachers which would allow for a better teacher-student ratio.

Why: And on top of all this, we have to consider that comparing 1000 experienced teachers resigning to 800+ freshly-hired teachers is an exercise of comparing apples to oranges. Or at least, apples to cider. Losing X experienced staff and gaining X inexperienced staff maintains parity only in terms of warm bodies in classrooms: it doesn’t account for the loss of experience/skill, nor the loss in terms of training and developing those experienced staffers throughout their time with MOE.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because even if it manages to calibrate exactly the right number of teachers to hire each  year to make up for losses, it will nonetheless be bleeding talent/experience. It needs to focus not just on being attractive to school-leavers, but to continue being attractive to in-service staff.

In relation to (2):
Most teachers interviewed by Straits Times claim they left because of excessive admin; MOE has a counterclaim that most teachers leave because of family concerns and “desire for another job”.

What is the problem here: Either ST coincidentally interviewed a batch of former teachers whose reasons for leaving fall outside MOE’s “top three reasons”, or there’s a problem with MOE’s internal reporting mechanism that makes people say one thing to MOE and another thing to interviewers.

The latter isn’t all that bad. People are complicated and often have complicated reasons for doing significant things, such as leaving careers. It isn’t entirely inconsistent for someone to have multiple reasons for leaving the service, and to cite different ones depending on who he’s talking to.

Still, it begs the question why MOE’s apparent data on why teachers leave doesn’t seem to square with ST’s. From personal experience, I know that teachers have to go through a fairly rigorous exit-interview process before they leave, and there is a good-faith attempt by MOE to find out why you’re leaving.

Why the data might not square:  I think implementation has a big role to play. Principals/management who do exit-interviews may be doing so using a standard form, but how the interview turns out really depends on the past relationship between the resigning teacher and the manager in question. I had a very good relationship (or at least, I’d like to think so) with the principal who interviewed me, and so I felt able to provide a fair and honest account of why I was leaving. I could be very open about my reasons, without concealing anything to avoid hurting her feelings, or hurting my own chances of being re-employed.

BTW, do you think that using an exit-interview to assess whether someone is suitable for re-employment might affect the quality of feedback provided at the exit-interview?

Miscellaneous: MOE actually does administer school climate surveys and so on to gauge the mood of teachers in schools. So there’s that at least. But having done my share of those surveys, here are some things I think are lacking:

  • transparency: I don’t think I had access to the full accounting of the surveys for my school, nor did I have access to the national data. I would have liked it, simply to see if my responses matched those of my colleagues, and whether our responses were in line (and if not, in what way?) with the national sentiment.
  • accountability: I’ve served in more than one school, and at least one of those principals was very open about what she was doing on our behalf, and I really appreciated that. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be a standard thing required of all school leaders to be seen to respond directly to the feedback provided in climate surveys, which tends to create a feeling of futility.
    • ideally, what should happen is this: The school staff have collectively provided Feedback A. School leaders will openly disclose this to staff, and announce a plan for further data-collection, and then reform. “Many of you have said X. I will now commit to finding out from all of you more about X, and how X can be improved. And in Y time-frame, having collected all this information, I commit to embarking on Z in direct response to your feedback.”
      • eg. “Many of you have said that you spend too much time doing admin. I will now commit to finding out more from all of you on what sort of admin you do, and how we can reduce the workload… And now, 6 months’ later, having done my research, I commit to reducing everyone’s admin workload by 20% by hiring 5 new staff to take charge of (whatever).”
    • instead, what has happened in my experience is that staff get harangued for not being happy with what they have, get provided with vague assurances, and then get fed policies/practices that they didn’t ask for in response to problems they never raised.
      • maybe what MOE really needs is a “response to climate survey” survey. “After the last climate survey, was your feedback disclosed? Was it properly researched? Was it properly acted-upon? How do you think your principal/HOD/cluster sup etc. could have better acted-upon your feedback?”
        • Of course, we might very well iterate this to the point of absurdity.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because a teacher’s experience differs vastly based on where they teach and who they work with. Improving outcomes for teachers for the sake of improving teacher-retention means that MOE needs to take into account all possible factors for teacher-fatigue/discontent, and be able to provide alternatives. The current system is very heavily dependent on a very strict chain of command (“Your performance is evaluated by your Reporting Officer. Got any problems? Tell your Reporting Officer. What if your Reporting Officer, or HIS Reporting Officer, is the problem? Er, dunno lor. Suck thumb.”) without much alternatives. To make things worse, MOE seems to outsource a lot of its HR (at least, I assume so. I am very glad to be corrected on this issue), which seems to create additional obfuscation.

Personally, I think teachers need access to an independent third-party who can evaluate comments/criticism, like an ombudsman or a union rep. I mean, technically speaking there is a Teacher’s Union, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever done for me except organise SDU-style “meet more singles!” events that I never attended.

If such a system is already in place, I’ve never encountered it. This could very well be because my organisational awareness was super-bad (at least, that’s what my work review always said), but perhaps also because such channels weren’t advertised, or didn’t appear credible.

On a side-note, and a somewhat personal note, I’ve also observed that teachers tend to be happier when they’re teaching the subjects they signed on to teach. What’s awful is that some of them don’t. It sounds crazy that sometimes we hire teachers who’re skilled in A and then force them to devote their time to B, but it happens way more than is conscionable.

The organisation often claims expedience and exigency: essentially, that something desperately needs doing and so people get crammed into the role.

It seems odd that an organisation which often justifies its decisions to its own staff on exigent grounds seems rather publicly indifferent to the number of staff who are leaving, since one would assume that thousands of experienced teachers leaving the service would only make shortages more acute.

In relation to (3):
Resigning teachers listed their grievance as being: excessive admin workload, long hours, huge class-sizes, and unreasonable parents. MOE listed its responses as basically a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with the grievances. Imagine you’re drowning and shouting for help, and someone throws you a fire-extinguisher.

What appears to be the problem: MOE’s announced policies to improve staff retention have nothing to do with why they’re losing staff. This is a very basic problem. It may be related to what I mentioned above about feedback not being collected in a useful/reliable manner, or it may be due to the “throw money at the problem” ethos that seems so endemic to Singapore.

Meritocracy and pay: The general assumption seems to be that talented individuals are willing to overlook any amount if dissatisfaction if you throw enough money at them. This general assumption may very well break down when applied to an industry that nobody joins for the sake of profit. When was the last time you heard anyone wanted to become a teacher to get rich? Yeah. I thought so.

Granted, some people leave teaching to become private tutors, and yes, the money is a lot better. If MOE paid me a private tutor’s rate, I would have earned something like $20,000++ a month. But what’s the causal relationship here? Do teachers become tutors because the money is better, or do they become tutors because first and foremost of better hours/job-scope/workload/satisfaction, with the higher pay being a bonus? I would wager that the latter tends to ring more true: even if I had left teaching to pursue full-time tuition, I wouldn’t have kept the same hours and earned more: instead, I would have tried to reduce my workload/improve my focus on teaching, while at the same time seeking to maintain (instead of radically increase) my income.

I’m not saying the money is bad. In fact, quite the opposite. Money was one of the least of my problems as a teacher. It was decent and reasonable. I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach. What actually happened is that people kept coming to me to say, “Put some of this teaching-related stuff aside, and do this non-teaching stuff instead.”

The “admin workload problem”: In some ways, it’s real. Now, MOE tends to tell teachers that “not everything you hate is admin”, which is kinda true. If I want to bring students on a learning journey, there’s a lot of paperwork associated with it that I might hate, but at the end of the day it’s still in service of the students, and with some maturity and perspective, I grew to resent that sort of thing less. Still, what about work in service of something that you don’t believe in at all, or even worse, violently object-to?

Still, it’s a problem. I spent far more time on organisation-related tasks than student-related ones, and at around the midpoint of my teaching career, I realised (not only on my own; this message was quite strongly pushed by fellow teachers/seniors/school leaders) that my real duty wasn’t to the students as I saw it, but rather to the organisation. Ultimately, the organisation, not the students, decided how much of my work was valued. And this is a very real problem.

Teachers are fed two messages on a fairly consistent basis:
1) teaching is a vocation, and you should be doing it because it’s meaningful, and satisfying
2) the organisation decides on how much your contribution is worth.

Now, if you assume that values-alignment between organisation and staff is 1 for 1, then there’s no problem, but that much alignment in an organisation numbering 30k ++ is basically impossible. So what happens? The two messages become incoherent and mutually incompatible.

In my experience, eventually most teachers face this challenge: do I go with my gut, my heart, and my ethics, and pursue entirely intrinsic rewards? Or do I go with what my organisation tells me, and get that promotion/good performance grade/high bonus (extrinsic rewards)?

Now, those teachers who have the good fortune to be well-aligned with their schools may very well be able to either resolve this easily or skip it entirely, but I think quite a large number of us struggle with it on a daily basis.

Now, you may very well say that this is a reality of working life. If I became a banker, I would also face the choice of whether to pursue the intrinsic satisfaction of a fulfilling family life, or the extrinsic satisfaction of high pay in exchange for basically living in the office. But it’s different for teachers because we didn’t sign up for this. People who become bankers or salesman or whatever accept the profit-first self-second nature of private sector work. People become teachers because they don’t want to experience this conflict.

But yet they do anyway. Why?

“Admin workload” complaints are a symptom of the real problem — teaching as a skill isn’t given sufficient value

It has a lot to do with the message that’s sent. When someone tells you to do admin instead of working on teaching, what they’re really saying (or at least, what you subconsciously hear) is that they value your admin work more than your teaching work. I remember having to resign myself to delivering “merely OK” levels of pedagogy because I had to focus on things that I didn’t want to do, that I was bad at doing, but which the organisation said was more important than doing a good job.

This is not to say MOE says that bad teaching is OK. Instead, I got the sense that it was very important to be a decent teacher, but that beyond that, there was very little incentive to be a great teacher, as opposed to be a decent teacher + a stellar administrator. Which is kind of harsh for someone who wants to be a great teacher.

Obviously, this isn’t 100% representative of the entire service. Some schools have the student profile, the resources, and the overall mission that support teacher-excellence; some others have a genuine need for teachers to do more than teach. And of course, some people are eager to teach a broader spectrum of content, such as life-lessons and ethics, while others become teachers out of a pure love for their discipline. Perhaps what’s really lacking is an open recognition of this, and a better system for matching teacher-expectations with school-needs.

What I’d really love is to have teacher-tasks weighed on a credits system, sort of like university modules, and teachers can assemble their workloads based on what they find meaningful. Let’s say if you want to earn a basic pay of $3000, you need to sign up for 30 units worth of work. You could sign up for 20 units worth of academic teaching, and 10 units worth of CCA support, for example. Or 30 units worth of pure academic teaching. Or 15 units of PE and 15 units of community service, or whatever. And then teachers would be able to move from facility to facility. It makes very little sense to have Teacher A in School A who hates doing 6 hours of choir CCA when you have Teacher B in School B who can’t enough of it. Of course, this is all pipe-dreaming: I’m sure there are other higher-level considerations like security clearances, esprit de corps/school culture/identity and so on. But it’s a nice dream nonetheless.

All that aside, I return to my theme. Teaching — mastery of a subject, and then subsequently the ability to inspire and support students in emulating that mastery-process — is a skill that ironically seems underrated in the teaching service. On an anecdotal level, I know teachers of English who’ve had to resign from the service altogether to pursue studies in writing, or even MAs in Education. It seems inconceivable that a teacher would be forced to quit the teaching service to get better at teaching, but for many of the thousands of teachers who leave, this seems to be the case.

One of the reasons why tuition is alluring is not just because of the pay, but what the pay represents. Someone paying you $X an hour for Y hours to do nothing but teach is telling you that what you do, matters. Nobody is ever going to ask a tuition-teacher to divert his time to filling out forms or overseeing tenders for services. Nobody is going to stop a tuition-teacher in the middle of his lesson to ask him to go supervise a tennis match. That’s because his time is too valuable. The message that goes to a tutor is that “we employ and value you for this skill“. Whereas the message that many teachers receive is that “we employ and value you for your ability to teach minimally well, while also juggling an ever-changing portfolio of tasks that you may or may not have interest in”.

All this makes one of MOE’s reported fixes especially insulting. Teachers say that they wish they could focus on teaching, and MOE says that they want to reduce the marking-load. While marking isn’t fun, it’s part of teaching. I didn’t necessarily enjoy marking hundreds of essays at one shot, but I never felt that it didn’t have value. In fact, if I didn’t mark as much, how could I claim to understand my students’ competencies and weaknesses? What made marking really awful was having to mark before the holidays came, and at the same time have to plan/organise non-academic holiday activities. Why not provide teachers with a better marking environment/timeline by removing the superfluous activities?

But no, instead MOE’s response to teachers not doing enough teacher-stuff, is to remove some of the teacher-stuff they don’t mind doing. Presumably so that they can give them even more non-teaching stuff that they will hate doing.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because until teaching — pure teaching (lecturing/lesson-planning/delivering lessons/marking work/providing remedial assistance) activities — is given the pride of place it deserves, teachers who sign up to be teachers (instead of teachers-cum-counsellors-cum-paramedics-cum-sports-coaches-cum-accountants-cum-administrators-cum-saigang-party (coughelectionsdepartmentcough)) are going to feel undervalued and undercompensated for doing what they love, while at the same time being overloaded and overexploited in service of things that they didn’t (at least, not ostensibly) sign up for.

I used to be a teacher. To this day, the things I remember the most fondly, and the things I miss most about it, are the things that had to do with the students: lecturing, teaching, even marking and going over the marked work. I’m very proud of what my students have accomplished, and I feel honoured that they allowed me to be a part of their lives. Some of them still remember me, and keep in touch, and that’s a rare privilege.

To all the students I’ve ever encountered, my only regret in leaving the service was not having done more for you.

In which I actually think the establishment has done a good job

Does this pose “a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined”? Could this be a test case for Administration of Justice (Protection) Act? 
IMO, and in response:
1) The accused didn’t use any of the money for their own ends, so there’s no legal basis for criminal breach of trust.
He seems to focus very much on the ‘converts to own use’ bit, but the very statute he cites in its entirety also says “… or dishonestly uses or disposes of that property in violation of any direction of law prescribing the mode in which such trust is to be discharged, or of any legal contract, express or implied, which he has made touching the discharge of such trust, or wilfully suffers any other person to do so, commits “criminal breach of trust…” Given that the original inquiry comes from the Commissioner of Charities, it seems the answer for ‘what is the legal basis?’ seems fairly self-evident: even if the money is not converted to one’s own use, mishandling it dishonestly is still CBT. Alternatively, saying that they’ll use it for A when instead they used it for B, seems to fulfil the requirement for disposing of it “… in violation of … any legal contract, express or implied…”
2) Who is the state to tell the church how it should manage things if it acts in accordance to its own constitution?
This seems like company-law thinking, but a church isn’t just a company. It’s also a charity. IRAS, in a letter, points out that a “… charity’s main purpose is to provide public benefits through its charitable activities”. There is a higher ethical burden on charities, and greater scrutiny, which justifies their tax-exempt status. Again, the initial investigation against CHC was initiated by the Commissioner of Charities.
He draws a comparison between the leeway enjoyed by investment firms and asks why churches should not be given the same latitude or be governed by the same rules. Again, it seems self-evident that a church is not a bank (even if its leaders treat it like one) and tax-exempt charities ought to be scrutinised differently from ones that do pay taxes. 
3) Why not haul everyone in to testify?
I don’t think the prosecution is obliged or encouraged to produce everyone who might conceivably have any connection with an offence. The system is adversarial, dawg.
4) All ministries need to be taken to court regularly so their processes can be scrutinised
Like CHC, ministries, stat boards, and other companies have their own auditing processes. Unlike CHC, most of those don’t conceal things from their auditors.
a: Why is the gosh-darned Public Prosecutor so articulate and memorable? He should stop doing his job properly!
Not doing their jobs properly seems to be a CHC thing, and hopefully it doesn’t catch on.
b: Also the public is stupid and easily misled.
Given that at least some members of the general public have given CHC literally tens of millions of dollars to spend on CHINA WINE CHINA WINE CHINA WINE, I think I’ve finally found common ground with the learned writer!

Empathy and antipathy

Another year, another industrial accident in supposedly-safe, universally-Utopian Singapore. And another hard-hearted by-the-book response by the Powers That Be: standard-operating-procedures being used to deflect attention to protocols; and then a recitation of statistics and KPI’s achieved.


If the Singapore government can be said to have unequivocally failed in any area, it’s in PR, surely. Government communication with the public seems to be an unending and unmitigated disaster only exacerbated by the national press. Yes, our parliamentariotrons are now programmed to say things like “we are sad” when bad things happened, but you don’t really get the sense that it really touches them. We’re living in a world where machines have started passing the Turing test. If a computer can convince us that it’s human, why do our leaders so frequently fail to do the same?

What’s with the allergy to saying sorry, anyway? C’mon, the chairs in Parliament House are really new — they’re not the Seat of Peter, and nobody expects their occupants to conduct themselves infallibly. But they seem to feel obliged to conduct themselves as if executive inerrancy was settled dogma.

Just say sorry once in a while, guys. We can deal with it. Focus on the families and their loss. Sympathise, reach out, connect. Here, let me show you: “The tragic deaths of the two workers are a great loss to SMRT and to the nation, but none feel their loss more keenly than their families. As (officeholder) of the (organisation), I would like to extend my condolences to the families in their grief, and to assure them that SMRT, LTA, and the nation mourn with you. You have our sympathy and our support in this difficult period. In the days ahead, we will with renewed determination discover the errors and accidents that led to this tragedy, and strive to ensure that such a grave mishap will never again occur. Continued progress in developing and maintaining infrastructure must be balanced against the need to ensure the safety of all our staff, and we want to assure them and the public that we will do our utmost to keep our transport system safe for staff as well as commuters.”

IT’S NOT THAT HARD. But no, instead, apparently the Powers That Be believe that the best course of action to wash the blood off their hands is to adopt a posture of total bloodlessness.



EDIT: Minor changes to remove some flippancy. The deaths of the two workers are a real tragedy, and I did not intend to poke fun at their families’ loss.

For making the study of comparative religion compulsory in schools

I’m referring mostly to the line of articles and letters in the local press such as this one (Youth in Singapore shunning religion) and this one (Leave religious studies out of secular schools). There seems to be a certain anxiety about the ‘moral fibre of Singapore’ in these uncertain times, and the finger is being pointed in all sorts of directions, including the erosion of religious conviction and the rise of alternative lifestyles. In thinking about these issues, I’ve tried to crystallise my thoughts into three main questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why should we care?
  3. What do we need?

I believe that a more critical and formal look at how we’ve come to be the way we are and why we think and feel the way we do, will help Singaporeans analyse our behaviour and our customs in a manner that will let them improve, and more importantly, make them want to improve. And I think that comparative religion provides an excellent look at the first principles that go into behaviour and belief — areas that are very much neglected by our otherwise excellent education system.

To clarify: the study of comparative religion, as I understand it, is not the persuasive promulgation of the values of any particular religion, or set of religions. It is the study of the way in which religion influences behaviour. I believe it should be taught because it holds a mirror up to students and to society, and invites them to consider why they do what they do and why they think what they think.

Contrary to the argument that comparative religion might promulgate ‘good values’ (Religious studies can help foster good values), I think the study of comparative religion might actually foster constructive iconoclasm. Instead of promoting a set of values that a particular person or group might regard as ‘good’, it equips students with the ability and tools to ask if the values foisted on them really are good. And to argue against them if they aren’t. Which is what Singapore really needs more of, as opposed to more blind compliance.

1. What’s the problem?

Singapore’s a bit of an odd place, really. Although we tend not to think of the moral landscape of Singapore as a particularly happening place, it’s actually the front lines of a clash of ideologies that’s centuries old. We were ruled by Hindus, we paid tribute to the Chinese (with their syncretic mishmash of Legalist philosophy, various Eastern religions), and our last king converted to Islam. We were occupied by the British during their heyday, and they imported their Victorian, Indian-Raj-era laws and moral standards which, in many ways, still form the background of our values system. We were occupied by the Japanese, and while we didn’t imbibe much of their philosophy or culture of that time, the Occupation certainly did infect us with a self-interested, pragmatic survivalist mentality that seemed to dominate the thought of our early leaders and many of our current governors.

Those last two things (a kind of idealised neo-Victorian conservatism, and ruthless utilitarianism) are of particular note. They not only affect the way we think of social policy (monogamous heteronormativity being enforced; bootstrappism and self-sufficiency being extolled as virtues) but also how we legislate and do business. For example, it’s been observed that Singaporean customer service is awful. CNN, for example, characterised the customer service industry and its workers here as having no initiative, no product knowledge, and being lazy. This can be explained by looking at how certain values affect our behaviour: the virtue of self-sufficiency, a very English kind of class-consciousness, and perhaps a certain hangover that prescribes against appearing subservient, all affect the morale and motivation of service workers. Why should I tell you about this product — you’re perfectly capable of looking it up yourself. I’m already poorly-paid and lowly-ranked — what’s my motivation in doing a bad job well? We confuse courtesy with subservience, and the gold standard of politeness in Singapore is often a sullen silence that offers no insult but also invites no warmth.

And most of all, we respond to correction with hostility. Why should I change? Singapore is secular: doesn’t that mean my beliefs and attitude are above question, as long as I do my mechanical professional duty?


2. Why should we care?

The majority of Singaporeans are religious (about 80% identify themselves as an adherent of a religion). It’s not really important for the purposes of my little writeup what particular faith they identify with or the extent to which they do so: what’s important is that they choose, when asked, to identify as being religious, and thus “being seen as religious” is clearly a component of their self-image. Obviously, a detached bystander might look at their behaviour and go think, “This person isn’t religious at all”, in no small part due to some self-identifying religious people being frothing-at-the-mouth whackjobs who practice what they preach only selectively if at all.

We should care about what and how Singaporeans think about religion because it’s a very powerful force. Someone who identifies as religious will react in a certain way if his self-image is threatened. He may not be motivated to be charitable, but he might very well react violently if told, “If you don’t hate gays you’re not a good Christian/Muslim/whatever”, or “this new law threatens your ability to identify yourself as you wish”. The uncritical layman is quite vulnerable to ‘no true Scotsman’ logic.

And this isn’t idle speculation. Even as local NGOs have gained support and become more vocal, the local religious community has responded by becoming more active and prominent. Local pastors have taken potshots not only at alternative beliefs (Wear White Campaign) but also at other religions (Lighthouse Evangelism) and even feminism (the AWARE attempted takeover fiasco). Let’s leave aside for now the distressing observation that conservative Evangelical Christians frequently seem to be involved, and that this particular group seems to be one of the fastest-growing religions in a gradually-secularising society. Religious leaders in Singapore command huge followings, great influence, and also obscene wealth. It would be naïve to suggest that religion is a private thing into which society and the average Singaporean should not inquire — religion in Singapore is clearly far from private, in the sense of not interfering with the public sphere.

It’s merely poorly-understood.

3. What do we need?

Obviously I’m in favour of increasing religious literacy and implementing compulsory comparative religion studies. But that’s just a means to an end, really.

We should be critical of religions and religious leaders — especially our own. Perhaps not fully sceptical, but certainly critical. Why is this important?

I’m a Catholic. My religious leaders wield two kinds of authority: the divinely-conferred, internally-coherent authority of the Church, and the moral authority that they exert via their own personal charisma. As a good Catholic who participates in full communion with the Church, I’m obliged to be alive to the interaction of reason, my conscience, the scriptural tradition, and the direction of the Church authorities. I can’t do that without some level of critical analysis. After all, consistency isn’t one of the great virtues of any particular faith, and resolving inconsistencies requires a lively mind. Obedience to God and obedience to Man, are, obviously very different things.

I’d like to believe that everyone who self-identifies as religious faces the same struggle and would resort to the same process. We’re all told things that are difficult to swallow, to accept, to believe. Switching off our brains and listening to the loudest and most strident voice leads to unjust and potentially profane outcomes — we have leaders who tell us to be sexually pure but who violate the youth, who tell us that charity is a virtue and yet who grow fat and grotesquely wealthy by exploiting the gullibility of others, who tell us that divine law promotes order and justice and yet who go out of their way to sow discord and conflict. Navigating this maze, with its multitude of appeals not only to conscience and reason but also to emotion, to self-interest, to prejudice and the worst parts of our human nature, requires not only critical acuity, but also courage.

And that’s what comparative religion, taught right, should help equip students with. Sure, there are other ways of doing it, but the popular perception of critical thinking as a matter of ‘skill’ and not ‘knowledge’ (a particularly uncritical and unenlightened dichotomy. Thanks, MOE) is a false one. Yes, everyone with a critical inclination can gnash their teeth at anything they don’t like, but for arguments to bite deep and take hold, we need eyes to see too, and that comes from awareness and from understanding. Aggressive iconoclasm without knowledge and understanding is wanton destruction, of the sort that ISIS is perpetuating against the cultural history of the lands it occupies.

So if we want our kids to be able to deal with religion well, not only as religious adherents or as atheists or agnostics in their own right, but also as doctors, lawyers, policy-makers, service-providers, businessmen and so on, they need to know something about what people believe in, and why they do so, and what it makes them do and want. And that requires teaching, requires patience.

And courage. Some hearts will quail at the thought of introducing young minds to anythig to do with religion, simply because of how taboo and scary religion is to many people in Singapore. Disregard them.

Should Singapore retain or stop using its Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework?

This is a re-post of a comment I’m making on as part of the above discussion. I’m putting it up here because regardless of whether or not the comment passes moderation on, I think it has enough merit that I’m comfortable standing by the statement under my own name, on my own platform.

Mascots (Racial Harmony)
I object to racialism in general and most strenuously to the CMIO classification in particular. An emphasis on race (as opposed to ethnicity, nationality, or a range of other factors that could be used to provide the broad categories so useful to policy-making that other commentators are arguing for) is benighted, being both historically and scientifically bankrupt and devoid of value; the persistence of a race-aware mindset in Singapore is regrettable and is an impediment to progress. After discussing the inherent problems in race theory and the potential harms its promulgation may cause, I’d like to volunteer some alternatives.
Part of the problem is that there’s no real common understanding, or even official definition, of what constitutes race. In Singapore, we use ‘race’ as a catchall term to refer to ethnicity, language, culture, and geographic extraction; we also attribute moral, intellectual, physical, and behavioural qualities to each category. It lacks coherence, and inter-racial marriages are not the only manner in which this lack of coherence is beginning to cause a strain on our social fabric: we force ourselves to fit people into these artificial frameworks that we’ve built for ourselves.
No Historical or Scientific Value
The term is a legacy of the colonial period; concepts of a ‘Malay race’, for example, can be traced to the 18th century. Discussions of race that rely on some romanticised view of antiquity often forget how modern the theory of race, and indeed, of nationhood, are. The colonial Europeans were hardly romantic about race: race-profiling provided a shorthand for keeping a massive and diverse empire in check. Examples of implementation include the preferential conscription of specific ‘martial races’, from which we in Singapore derive our traditions of Punjabi doormen and Gurkha contingents. The blindness of the British to other factors of identity besides race and skin colour have led to such historic catastrophes as the Sepoy Mutiny of the 19th century; there’s little reason to suspect that the theory that failed them so badly should serve us any better two hundred years on.
Ironically, today’s definition of ‘race’ is probably even more simplistic and reductive than the definitions in use during the period where Singapore was a colonial power. The British were alive to the differences between Chinese from Shanghai and Swatow; ‘Malays’ from Boyan and Indonesia; Indians from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. The consolidation of these rich cultures into our current broad CMIO categories of ‘race’ was more a political expedient, perhaps in aid of nation-building, than any sort of distinction that can be supported by history or by science. Such consolidation has been disastrous to the texture and complexity of Singapore’s cultural landscape, already beleaguered by such policies as the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which has by and large rendered the ability to speak non-Mandarin Chinese dialects something of a rarity among the current generation of young Singaporeans. To speak of ‘race’ is already to demonstrate a lamentable backwardness; to promulgate a belief in Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other races is laughable.
The theory of race is rooted in the idea of Western (and white) supremacy and imperialism; to propound it today is to compound the mistakes of the past.
Race theory further fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Phenotypical differences in humans, such as skin and hair colour, are factors arising from the way geography has ‘hothoused’ particular adaptive traits to particular regions. As these traits are purely physiological ones for adaptation to specific climates, there’s little reason to believe that the behavioural qualities popularly attributed to races aren’t instead caused by more complex, socio-cultural factors. The notion that most Malays, or most Chinese, or most Indians, may behave in certain ways if ungoverned (form enclaves, say, out of pure racial co-feeling) is simplistic to the point of absurdity: ghettoisation or the formation of enclaves is much more sensibly-explained by examination of religious affiliation, language, and wealth, among other factors.
Geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long have called the boundaries between ‘racial’ groups “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify”; this porousness and lack of coherence make categorising people according to their race at worst dangerous, at best pointless. Promoting the concept of race theory in schools is also disastrous, because it sanctifies as fact what is merely theory, and creates a thoroughly-false ideal of antique racial purity — in essence, it creates a belief in a yardstick of ideal ‘Chineseness’ or ‘Malayness’ by which everyone in those groups are measured, when there is no anthropological or genetic or indeed any other scientific evidence to suggest that such a pure, “isolated, homogeneous… population” ever existed. Not only does a ‘Chinese race’ or ‘Malay race’ not exist, but they have never existed.
Placing race at the heart of our politics makes racialisation of issues unavoidable. The Ministry of Education, for example, tracks educational attainment by ethnic group. The Prime Minister, during his National Day Rally, tends to refer specifically to the educational attainment of Malays. Why? Is this helpful? Shouldn’t policies intended to improve educational attainment be targeted at the causes of poor performance (say, poverty, lack of access to secondary and tertiary education services such as tuition and enrichment) instead of race? Does a Chinese student who’s performing poorly in his studies require a Chinese-specific strategy that would be less effective with a Malay or Indian or ‘Other’ student? The only thing that comes to mind is that social aid is disbursed through racially-aligned organisations (SINDA et al); besides the government’s abhorrence for distributing aid directly, I can’t think of a good reason why we ought to continue disbursing aid through charitable organisations aligned with race instead of, say, specific needs. It’s backward, and probably quite unfair. My partner for example once qualified for academic awards from SINDA but not from CDAC. Why? Should aid not be disbursed according to need and not racial affiliation?
The issue only gets worse with the HDB quota, which is an area of discussion that has its own entry and hence, which I shall avoid going into here.
By aligning policies with race, we force classifications of identity onto people that they might not actually want, for no good reason. Ultimately, I’m as Chinese as I choose to be: it is very possible that I could choose to eschew all behavioural markers of Chinese identity altogether and adopt those of another culture entirely, or I could choose to wear a queue and eat rice all day every day and practice kung fu in public, and everything in between, and well it should be. If someone can choose the extent to which he participates in an identity, to the extent of complete immersion or complete rejection, why then should he be forced to still bear a label that doesn’t accuracy describe him in any conceivable way save for acting as a reminder of parentage? This inflexibility renders the idea of using race-profiling as a guideline for policymaking nonsensical: effectively, any policy based on race (the selection of ‘mother tongues’ in schools, for example) is going to be unresponsive and rigid, which is the absolute opposite of what policies need to be in order to remain effective and meaningful.
The specific categories of CMIO also enshrine the majority races at the point of Singapore’s formation, and if it continues to remain a sacred cow, would mean that these races would continue to enjoy (or suffer) permanent classification in a manner unresponsive to any actual demographic change. What if, for example, the number of Indians become overtaken by Filipinos? Will we update to CMFO? Will we remove Tamil signage and replace it with Tagalog?
Perhaps most pernicious is the way in which the CMIO classification is sanctified and passed-on: it’s not only affixed to your identity documentation, but it’s engraved upon your heart through years of public schooling. Students are taught race theory as fact rather than theory, in a manner that’s both intellectually-dishonest and dangerous, in the way that teaching Creationism as fact instead of theory is dangerous: it creates a fixed idea of the world at a very early age. Other commentators have remarked that Singapore may transition to more enlightened ways of viewing itself, but it requires CMIO in the interim; I reject this argument, because the way in which CMIO is taught ensures that Singapore will likely never be able to marshall the popular support for change necessary to make the transition to a more enlightened state. We are effectively promulgating a benighted theory, and then using the backwardness of the resulting population to justify political inertia, creating a comfort-zone of circular logic from which we need never depart. It’s stifling and it’s toxic.
CMIO-as-taught is also done in a manner that is, like everything else to do with CMIO, insultingly and laughably simplistic. The Mother Tongue of all Chinese people is Mandarin, even though it is properly a northern Chinese dialect, while the vast majority of Straits Chinese in Singapore and the region are of southern Chinese extraction! All Indians speak Tamil and are Hindus! Except those who aren’t! Malay identity and Islam are conflated! There’s no mention of the tenuous relationship between ethnicity and language and extraction; of the history of the region; of the salient and defining dogmas of various religions. Islam becomes all about not eating pork and not touching dogs; don’t expect a non-Muslim student to ever hear about the Five Pillars of Islam, of the centrality of zakat to Muslim religious practice. I mean, he might, but it’s more than likely that he never will.
Racial harmony, especially in schools which may be less-than-diverse in their enrolment and staffing, may become an exercise in promoting stereotypes instead of tolerance and understanding. Teachers may make a very real and very important difference here, by going above and beyond the call of duty in clarifying ambiguities and promoting real learning and understanding, but the day we require teachers to defy the syllabus to do their job is the day we ask ourselves if we really know what we’re doing.
I still remember, back in my teaching days, being asked by a 17-year-old, top-performing student in a great school, who Prophet Muhammad was, and resisting the impulse to throw myself out the nearest window in sheer horror. The student then defended her ignorance by asserting that she was Chinese, and therefore wasn’t required to know these things. The rest of the class just nodded sagely in support of her point.
This can’t continue.
Moving Forward
This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a coherent policy or a manifesto. I’m ultimately in favour of becoming race-blind entirely, and having that entire section of one’s birth-cert and IC struck out forever, but I recognise, as other commentators have, the need for some kind of transitional state to prevent total culture shock to the more clannish and insular sections of the population. I’ve seen another commentator recommend a ‘Singaporean’ ethnicity that one can always opt-into, and I approve of that measure.
I think having race and ethnicity be expressed as matters of choice rather than ancestry is a step in the right direction. Perhaps we need to have a ‘transition generation’, where kids have the ethnicity and racial groups of their parents recorded, but have none of their own apart from ‘Singaporean’. That way, should we really need to do some profiling, we could always do it with reference to the races of their parents, but not attach those racial labels indelibly to that generation. And once they move on, and have kids of their own, hopefully even the question of race will become obsolete.
As a more concrete and feasible option, I suggest we decouple ‘Mother Tongue’ from ancestry (I’m aware that it is possible to apply for exemption, but the process is case-specific and the criteria unclear, except that it advantages children who’ve been away from Singapore). Bilingualism is good; multilingualism is even better, but the incentives for it decrease dramatically once children are told that there’s some kind of moral prerogative to learn and cherish one language over all others. Let kids learn Malay or Arabic or Italian or whatever. Let kids learn Cantonese or Teochew. Or better yet, let them do all of the above. If a parent wants to align his kid with Latin America and have him learn Spanish or Portuguese instead of Mandarin or Malay, he should be allowed to. After all, PM Lee has complained about how our reluctance to work abroad limits us; I believe this to be a direct result of how narrowly and parochially we’ve shaped people’s ideas of identity and society.
A positive side-effect from decoupling language from race would hopefully be the abolition of schools with single-language specialisations (I’m looking at you, SAP schools). I can’t think of a just reason why Chinese kids who go to schools specialising in Chinese should benefit from preferential funding and special budgets and additional opportunities, but there aren’t any equivalents for other races and languages.
The roots and wings metaphor often used in education is appropriate, I think. Once a people are fledged, roots are where we return to roost, from which we draw comfort and shelter, and not something restrictive and discriminatory that restrains us from spreading our wings to the fullest. The point of roots is to give us a place to come back to, not to anchor us to a place that we can never leave.
As currently-practiced, the only avian metaphor appropriate to the CMIO system is that of an albatross around our necks.

Looking Forward

It sure took me long enough to put fingers to keyboard over the local election. Maybe it’s a sign I’m slowing down. I’d like to think it’s a sign of me wisening up: certainly, I’ve been told before I could afford to think a bit more about what I said before I said it. I know I only have it in me to do the one pre-General Election post, so I want as much as possible to make it a good one. I’m also timing it thus because I’m not really writing to try to change anyone’s point of view or to influence their choices: what I’m trying to do is to tap on the issues everyone’s already thought about to lead into a different discussion.

When I first started contemplating this post, at first I was wondering which candidate I should endorse or which party to excoriate, etc etc. But given the tenor of discourse that has been flying thick and fast the last week, I hardly think my contribution on that score would be necessary or even noticeable.

Unlike my friend Casimir Kang, who has a way of transmuting even the most unpalatable of things into something graceful, like some kind of rhetorical Sammo Hung, I’m instead capable of the opposite, apparently, and am currently competing for the world record for the number of feet fitted into mouths in a fixed time award. So I won’t even try to sugar-glaze some of this. Well then, here we go.

  1. Tricky Metrics
    By which I refer to how we measure our status. You see, some days I wonder if there aren’t two completely different Singapores, because I find it difficult to reconcile the conflicting and contradictory claims with which the average person is being bombarded.On the one hand, we’re the most expensive city in the world, and the least happy. Our CPF is the best retirement scheme in Asia, except it’s inadequate (which is, I suppose, understandable; just sad). We’ve got really low taxes, except we don’t. We’ve got record levels of home ownership, except we don’t, because the vast majority of home owners have just paid for 99 years worth of rental. Our leaders are compassionate, except they aren’t. We want to be a vibrant home for the arts, except we really super don’t. We want our young children to be creative, except we don’t because creativity is risky and risk is scary.

    It’s a little hard to swallow since the information keeps coming at you from both ends. It’s less like choking down a difficult meal and more like getting spitroasted.

    Yeah, you know what I mean.

    The only way to really reconcile all these things is to realise that ‘one Singapore’ doesn’t actually exist. There are at least two, if not two million. There’s a Singapore for the wealthy, for the successful, for the affluent, for the meritocrats; and then there’s a Singapore for everyone else, who’re told to look around at the region and feel grateful they’re not in Malaysia or Indonesia. There’s a Singapore in which we’re told to be glad that families earning less than $1000 can have a roof over their heads and in which we should ship our senior citizens off to die in a foreign country because the land there is cheap, and another one in which our most exclusive and swankiest properties are mostly occupied by foreigners (and unscrupulous clerics).

    And this is a problem, because it seems we’re becoming acclimatised to accepting this new normal of gross inequality. During his Party Political Broadcast, PM Lee talked about all the handouts that they’ve given out, and how plans for the future include the transformation of the Tanjong Pagar area into a seafront city three times the size of Marina Bay. Like the latter is something we ought to be proud of.

    Except how many of us can afford to live in/near Marina Bay? Or even eat or drink there regularly? It’s a pretty place for walks, I suppose, but then again, it was plenty pretty even before the Supertrees reared their heads over the area.

    We’re building more and more monuments, things the world tells us we ought to be proud of, except fewer and fewer of us are actually going to be able to do anything with or in those monuments, except gawk from a distance. Want to go to an award-winning zoo? $30! Museum? $30! Want to go see those Supertrees up close? $30! Hey, why not check out our pride and joy, the sky-dominating surfboard of our casino? $100!

    Singapore’s getting prettier and prettier, but also further and further away, somehow. One day we’ll be a shining city all of crystal and gold, hovering amidst the clouds themselves in glory, packed to the brim with science and progress and all that good stuff.

    All the plebs of the Earth, including all our senior citizens and poor people and minorities who can’t afford to live amidst theclouds, will look up at us in wonder, and we’ll fling them scraps and shower them in our excrement, should they be so lucky.

    Laputa was never more aptly named.

  2. Singapore’s Future Isn’t Local
    Of course, given that future I’ve described, we’re all justifiably terrified. We have millions of fingers of blame to point, and millions of easy targets to point them at. Let’s hate on foreigners, everyone! Some parties have managed to do this with more tact than others, although ironically the party that has made the foreigners issue their main platform has also done absolutely the worst job of discussing it in a non-hate-provoking manner.


    We’re not racists, but~

    not-racist-butNow, I’m not a fan of anyone who can’t assimilate culturally, or worse, thinks they shouldn’t be obliged to. That being said, Singaporeans can be surprisingly close-minded about ‘the outside world’. It’s very easy, I think, with how convenient Singapore is, to forget that the rest of the world exists at all, and that’s a dangerous thing.

    I’m not sure how to put this, so I’ll just come right out and say it: if you’re worried about some foreigner coming to Singapore and stealing your job, you need to up your game, go overseas, and steal some foreigner’s job instead. We need to prepare our kids, not to lure the world here, but to get out there and do some hunting, to come back red-tongued and bloody-mouthed with their latest kill. Heck, I’m not even sure we have time to prepare our kids — we really ought to be preparing ourselves for that.

    Singapore is too small for Singaporeans. This is a truth that all of us have grown up with. But we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the wild and wonderful world beyond our shores is only for the rich, because only the rich can afford to go anywhere in comfort and safety. It’s too bad we’re not willing to put comfort and safety aside, because that’s exactly what other people are doing in order to come to Singapore, and really, if you’re not willing to go the distance the way they are, I don’t see why you ought to be entitled to anything purely on the basis of birthright.

    I’ve heard all kinds of lame excuses as to why people aren’t willing to venture further afield. This is about as much sympathy as I can manage:

    1. “I can’t speak English/Chinese/Portuguese/Dutch very well.”
      Well, tough titties, ain’t it? The foreigners who’re coming in don’t speak English or Mandarin or whatever very well either, but the ones who really succeed seem to be willing to learn. There are angmohs in Singapore who’ve lived in China and speak better Mandarin than our locals do. They send their kids to our local schools or to ones which prioritise Chinese language education. They adapt. They change. They’re willing to bite the bullet because the sweet just desserts are worth it. They don’t whinge and wring their hands about how learning languages is difficult.I blame the mother tongue policy, really. Not because bilingualism is bad per se, but because by tagging our choice (or rather, non-choice) of language to our ethnicity, we’ve attached some kind of sacred significance to the link between language and ethnicity. “You can’t be Chinese if you don’t speak Mandarin,” I’ve been told by everyone from my Chinese teacher to my Chinese students.

      Well. Shit. I guess those 400 million people in China who don’t speak an artificially-imposed hegemonic tongue aren’t real Chinamen after all, right? I guess all those Englishmen who don’t speak Danish/German/Norman French aren’t real Englishmen either.

      There’s a word for feeling like you deserve something that you haven’t earned.

      While I’m a firm believer that a decent living is a right that everyone ought to enjoy, being able to do so without stirring foot from your doorstep is a huge, huge privilege. One I think Singaporeans, for the sake of the future, need to wean themselves off of.

    2. “I don’t want to leave my parents behind.”
      Well, who’s asking you to? Go somewhere your parents will enjoy free healthcare, or an old-age pension; alternatively, go somewhere you can afford to put your deserving parents up like lords and ladies at a fraction of the cost of a decent lifestyle in Singapore.
    3. “No, I mean, my parents won’t leave. And I can’t leave them here.”
      I’m sorry, dear reader, but I think you can and you should. If my grandfather had thought that way, if most of our forefathers had thought that way, none of us would be here.Singapore is a migrant nation. Even the indigenous Malays are only sorta-indigenous, for the most part, since ‘Malay’ is a catch-all kind of classification that embraces groups like the Bugis and the Boyanese/Baweanese. They’re certainly indigenous to the region, but to Singapore? Even our earliest settlements from the 13th century accepted refugees from the Srivijayan and Majapahit empires. How many of our Malays wouldn’t be here today if Parameswara/Sang Nila Utama/whoever had gotten cold feet about setting sail? Even the late Mr Lee traced his descent to China, and his success to an enterprising ancestor.

      Abandoning the familiar for the foreign is an essential part of the enterprising spirit that made us great, and, it could be argued, an essential part of the spirit of the region. Southeast Asia grew great on trade, commerce, and cultural exchange. The Malaccan Sultanate flourished under Imperial Chinese patronage, and indeed, if their ancestors hadn’t been receptive to the Islamising influence of Arab traders, today’s Malays would have a very different character to their culture. Before the Dutch came, the Bugis were unrivalled in their mastery of the seas and famed for their wide-ranging expeditions. Even in the early days of our independence, in a tradition that carries on till today, we send our best and brightest overseas in the hope that they’ll amass treasures of wisdom and knowledge to bring back.

      Singapore will always be home to many of us, but home’s a place to which one returns, not a place from which one cannot stir.

      That’s not a home.

      That’s a cell.

  3. Unity is Overrated
    Unity has long been the rallying-cry of just about everything to do with Singaporean government and administration. I’ve lost track of the gallons of bile I’ve vomited after being told to do something “… as one!” Seriously, it’s like the catch-all conversation-ender for your run-of-the-mill middle-manager who’s run out of ideas. Can’t think of a way to get someone to do what you want? Tell him that if he doesn’t he’s not showing ‘team spirit’ or ‘working as one’.This has affected (for the worse, I’d argue) our attitude towards just about everything. The only things that are fit to inhabit the ‘shared space’ of public life are things that are universally inoffensive. No drums for Thaipusam (but lion dance is OK)! Gay male buttsex makes you a criminal, but every other kind of buttsex is OK!
    ob markersThe Arts are dangerous! The Internet is dangerous!

    The fact is, PM Lee admitted in his broadcast that Singapore is getting more diverse, but I’m not sure he knows what to do about it. What sort of concessions are we likely to see towards that diversity? The Sedition Act, the ISA, the use of defamation suits, the Broadcasting Act, the heavy-handed use of the Party Whip in the name of ‘party discipline’… these things are all still on the table, and none of the parties have tabled anything that might take them off the table. Instead, they’ve all argued, to a man, that more representation yields more debate.

    Yeah, OK, suppose it does? There’s a difference between more debate and effective debate. Even if I parachute the world’s most persuasive man (ie. myself) into Parliament, what does it matter if I can persuade even an opposing party to see things my way, if any break in party discipline is grounds for dismissal not only from the party but from Parliament itself?

    Singapore needs its diversity now more than ever. As the world gets weirder and the future more fearsome, we need to cover all our bases. We can’t afford to have blind spots caused by the planks that all our national bigots have got in their eyes. We need to be more inclusive and accepting. We need to start thinking of foreigners as people. We need to start thinking of children, even the inconveniently-illegitimate ones, as children. We need to stop institutionalised racialism, but we can’t unless we dismantle the apparatus that prevents us from speaking openly about race. We need to extend support to single mothers, unwed mothers, fathers who want to be more involved in bringing up their kids. Singapore needs you and it needs me, and it can’t afford to keep pretending that if we don’t help the undesirables that those groups will die natural deaths.

    Also, anyone who uses ‘family values’ as part of an exclusionary argument has no idea what family is, or means. Saying that you can pick and choose and discard undesirables, that only people who fit your norms deserve love, and that conformity is more important than well-being and happiness… That’s not family, that’s NS.

    I don’t want one Singapore. I want a multifarious, multifaceted Singapore. I have mine, you have yours, and we’re both strong and resilient enough to survive the collision of the two.

    Using unity as doublespeak for conformity just isn’t going to cut it.

    In the past, Singapore was like a galley, primitive and oar-powered. In that sort of situation, everyone has to be shackled to the oars and pulling in time with the drum. Consistency, conformity, and grit were the primary virtues.


    Left, your left, your left right!

    Today, Singapore’s like a sloop, trim and fast, sailing into a strong headwind. We’ve got a hundred and one moving parts and a gajillion sails. More than one person pulling on one rope at a time is a waste of bloody time. We need to give people the space to do their own thing. ‘Chase rainbows’, PM Lee says.


    Let’s just assume this is what he meant

  4. Value, Not Wealth
    Oooh, but at the same time, Singapore can’t afford to be unexceptional! We have to keep our noses to the grindstone! We need to be exceptional! Well, not necessarily exceptionally creative (see above: creativity is scary and dangerous), but exceptionally hard-working! We’ve already got the longest working hours in the world. We coincidentally have pretty low productivity levels, which is totally unrelated to the other thing I said. Surely the solution to the problem is more work! Harder better faster stronger! Working hours go up and the retirement age gets pushed back and so on with no end in sight.Literally no end in sight. There’s no change in paradigm, no alteration of tone or message, nothing to suggest that any party has any idea what to do when we run out of people to employ or hours in a day. No shift in the endless rhetoric of more more more.

    zug zug

    If you heard “zug-zug” in your head, you’re in the right generation

    So, basically only chase rainbows if there’s a pot of gold at the end. That’s not a real improvement, sir.

    The thing is, we’re going to hit the limits of wealth sooner or later. At some point, we’re going to run out of men and hours and man-hours to grease the wheels of the Mammon-machine. What will we do then?

    I guess I shouldn’t fault any party for focusing on bread-and-butter issues when so much of the population still has trouble with that, but I can’t shake the feeling that the reason there’s so much inequality is precisely because we’ve never gotten out of a bread-and-butter mindset.

    Even rich people feel threatened, feel insecure, feel that they need to safeguard their golden ricebowls. The scare-mongering and the rhetoric of fear that’s lashed across our backs whenever we show signs of slackening also makes it difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Singapore to move away from considerations of survival.

    “Work hard, because all of this can go away in the blink of an eye,” we hear on a regular basis, with the actual outcome of everyone hoarding like a possible catastrophe has now become imminent.

    If only we could see work, labour, wages, and welfare as more than just work-to-live/live-to-work arrangements. We need to start looking at value, not just wealth. The up-and-coming generation has gotten bored with wealth. They know everything has its price but have yet to discover their real value. The calculus is beginning to swing in the other direction: people are now willing to pass up promotions, even steady work, in order to spend more time with family or to pursue unconventional interests. There’s a new market in social enterprise, in making a sustainable living helping others get by.

    Sadly, I haven’t heard anything from any party about this. Perhaps the electorate doesn’t want to hear about this sort of thing. Still, it’s ironic and alarming to hear especially from the PAP that they have long-term plans, but that their long-term plans are just more of the same. None of the parties has yet proposed what we can or should do to promote not just wealthiness but well-being.

    This sort of imbalance is especially prevalent in all the anti-minimum-wage, anti-national-income rhetoric that’s been going around. Unemployment will go up! goes the cry. People won’t want to work because their lives will be too easy! Taxes will have to go up!

    A few months ago I was sitting in on a panel moderated by Donald Low involving the ambassadors of the various Nordic countries to Singapore. A question was raised about whether these countries, with their comprehensive welfare systems and free healthcare, had a problem with welfare queens.

    The memorable reply came in two parts.

    “People go to work even if they’d make almost the same money just collecting benefits, because their work is meaningful to them.”


    “The population is committed to paying the price of higher taxation to support the national welfare and healthcare initiatives, because we take great pride in how we care for everyone in our society.”

    I wonder when, if ever, we can expect to hear such sentiments expressed here.

Anti-intellectualism in the Smart City

To begin with, I’ve never understood why “smart-ass” is any kind of insult. I know my ass is smart. It’s smarter than some of my detractors, certainly. What about it?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but this article was mostly catalysed by the sudden focus and discussion on ‘giftedness’ and its place in a society that aspires to at least the appearance of egalitarianism. From what I can tell, it originally began with an article (“Gifted? More kids sent for psychology tests”) in the Straits Times. It seems like more parents are getting kids tested for high IQ or giftedness or whatever, so they can then be supported with greater discretion. There were some well-intentioned responses (“Hear the voices of the children”) expressing concern that kids these days are being put under more pressure, which is all well and good, but which then mentioned that “employers do not look at how ‘smart’ we are in the long run’. But then there were the almost knee-jerk reactions, warning of elitism (“Ensure we don’t create elitist mindset”). The latter concerns me.

Singapore is weird. It’s a city-state built by genius. From its earliest historical roots as a seat of kings to its modern success as one of the jewels of Asia, Singapore’s success has been shaped by vision and foresight, and the rigorous exercise of reason. It’s therefore ironic to note the wide streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through so much of Singaporean culture: as much as we aspire — sometimes on behalf of our children — to markers of high intelligence (good grades, positions in elite schools, professions known for being intellectually-demanding), intelligence itself seems to be something to be ashamed of in Singapore these days.

I’m writing about perceptions of intelligence-markers in general; I have some material specifically intended for addressing mechanisms like government scholarships that I’d like to develop separately.

I’m not sure why every study done on intelligence or IQ has to attract a raft of responses screaming that “IQ isn’t everything!” (“High IQ does not guarantee success”). Yes, we know. Anyone who knows anything about intelligence and identity and success will know that raw intelligence by itself is not only not useful, but is also only vaguely measured by one’s IQ. If this is common knowledge, why does it need to be so constantly — and so vehemently — reasserted in the face of any new reporting done on intelligence and IQ? It’s almost like we hate intelligence, so much so that every time it gets mentioned we need to jump up on tables and cover our ears and scream about values and character-development and resilience and creativity and courage in the face of adversity and whatnot. Why does everyone feel so threatened by intelligence, to the point that we must always equivocate statements made concerning it?

Maybe this has to do with some of the labels associated with intelligence. In Singapore, there are a huge assortment of potential intelligence-indicators that one may wear as medals or wield as weapons, and we become acquainted with these instruments at a very early age. 9? Gifted Education Programme. 10? Streaming. 12? PSLE. 16? ‘N’ or ‘O’ levels. And that’s only the formal education route! There are also now a tonne of other labels out there competing for your money and attention and energy! Did you go for piano and dance and taekwondo and creative writing lessons? Do you travel a lot to build cultural capital? Did you go to an MOE-sanctioned kindergarten, or one of the ones boasting Montessori, MindBoosters, HeadBlasters, or whatever new keyword/catchphrase in education is in vogue? These days, if you need extra help with your schoolwork, you even need to pass entrance exams for tuition centres!

What this all means is that if you’re Singaporean, you probably grew up being measured against markers of intelligence. If you had some, you had to get more. If you couldn’t get any, you were in desperate need of some alternative form of affirmation. For the longest time in Singapore, the only thing that mattered was how smart you were, and that intelligence had to be measurable in terms of the various forms of preferred national standardised tests.

Every parent in Singapore is an Asian parent

So now any new discussion of intelligence provokes raised hackles. We can’t mention anything about our own achievements or interests without somehow leavening it with something ‘down to Earth’. Unique among the virtues prized among Singaporeans, intelligence requires you to pair it with some kind of a priori proof of humility, or risk being shunned immediately on the basis of your presumed elitism. If you went to a good overseas school, or a good local one, or you happen to speak proper English, or happen to wield any other markers of intelligence (like reading, or something), you must constantly declare how normal and non-elitist you are, or everyone around you will gasp in horror and dash home to lock up their wives and daughters lest you capriciously choose to exercise your right of jus primae noctis or something. It’s exhausting. You feel discriminated-against, and for what? For having gone to school? For having certain interests? For being brought up a certain way?

My girlfriend often wonders why I identify so readily with American teen movies. Probably because my childhood essentially was one.

Thinking about it now, I wonder how long it took me after graduating from Some Place to learn that I shouldn’t tell anyone I did. I think it took me about six months — by the time I started working upon coming home, I’d learned to submerge my credentials beneath a maze of obfuscating answers. “What school you go?” is a very common conversation starter in Singapore, and if you say, “(insert gauche choice of university option here)”, you ought to be ready to field a bunch of snide remarks that start with, “Wah, you must be very smart, hor!”, which almost immediately segue into something that sounds something like, “But aiya, go this kind of school got use meh? You see this minister that minister, all go good school, all scholar, all cannot do anything!” And then you get the lecture about paying your dues. It’s like everyone carries around a whole quiver of microaggressions to unleash on you the moment you start looking like a taller-than-average poppy, uncaring as to whether you actually deserve to be cut down or not.

So I learned to provide that full answer only reluctantly, upon lengthy questioning.
“What school you go?”
“Oh, somewhere overseas.”
“Orh. Where ah?”
“Which one?”
And then at this point you sigh, and look mournful, and say, “(wherever)”
And then they look a bit chagrined at having found out this distressing news only upon persistent inquiry. They can’t accuse you for bragging if they had to drag the information out of you with hot irons, after all. So then you get to talk about something else.

Indeed, in Singapore, if you have anything in common with any authority figure — a surname, a hobby, a neighbourhood, much less an alma mater — you’re probably best off not mentioning it in newly-met company.

And thinking back, this is hardly new. While perhaps I grew most sensitive to this sort of thing after I graduated, it’s really always been a part of life. My mother knew that the only way to not get blacklisted from the ang pow list was to never let anyone know if either my sister or myself outperformed their own kids in school. I suppose modesty is a traditional Asian virtue, but you never see anyone being modest about their kid being in a sports team or whatever, but God forbid anyone at the dinner table mention school choice or an intellectual interest.

If you’re ever suffering from Singapore’s sweltering heat, clustered close with relatives around a table laden with steaming food, here’s a tip: “So, who’s your child’s favourite author?” is a question guaranteed to drop the room’s ambient temperature below freezing. Favourite football players are OK to ask about, as are celebrities, but authors are tres gauche.

So you go through life feeling inexplicably sheepish every time you get an award or something. Nobody beats on a kid for having the most extensive Street Fighter trading card or ‘country’ eraser collection (yay, I’m old!) —

I’m from the generation that can’t get anyone’s names right. Ryu is RAI-YOO, Guile is GOO-LEE, and M. Bison is Vega for some reason.

— but be the kid with a new book every day and boy howdy, you feel like you decided to trick-or-treat a Black Panther dressed as a bedsheet ghost. A decade of martial arts training hasn’t broken me out of the dirty-fighting habits that a year of carrying a book to primary school every day taught me.

Not appearing in this post: endless National Service “Air-level” (‘A’-level) jokes. Seriously, they’re just… bad. Making a joke about an NSF’s educational attainment makes you progressively more stupid every time you try it.

I suppose what I’m getting at is questioning how elitism grows in kids. The tenor of the public seems to indicate a belief that kids just sort of accrete ivory towers around them like crabs hardening their shells. We have to constantly cut kids down to size, we can’t differentiate education, parents who use new diagnostics to see if their kids are gifted are given cautionary warnings. We have to fear the elitist, we have to rout them out from their lairs!

In my experience, ivory towers are comforting not because the view is so great and unobstructed, but because how many rounds of the old torch-and-pitchfork waving can you go through before you decide to cash it in? How much discrimination, bullying, and stigmatisation do intelligence and intellectuals have to suffer before the public becomes satisfied that they’re sufficiently ‘non-elitist’?

I get that gifted kids are easy to demonise, but none of them asked for that label. I’m worried that kids in special programmes are becoming too easy to demonise, in today’s equality-conscious centric Singapore. C’mon, kids want to fit in. Kids love to fit in. Nobody likes being left out. Yes, even if he’s a book-reading, four-eyed nerd, he wants to get chosen to be on someone’s football team, he wants someone to pass the ball to him, he wants to join everyone at the end to either celebrate or recriminate. But if adults are going out of their way to complain about giftedness-identification, about special programmes, then what choice are we giving these kids but to associate with ‘like-minded’ types? Who rejects whom first?

I mean, nobody would complain if those parents sending their kids for psych-tests were sending them to be tested for learning disorders. Dyslexia, autism, Aspergers, ADHD, or something else. But giftedness, I think, should be considered as much a special educational need as having dyslexia, autism, and so on. A gifted child needs, and benefits from, a differentiated education catering to his strengths and weaknesses, as much as any other kid with a special learning need. Denying them this exposes them to the same kind of bullying and ultimately self-loathing and self-sequestration that we see from other special-needs kids whose interaction with the mainstream many aren’t carefully curated.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t have access to the same tools that parents nowadays have, but I think my mother could tell at an early stage that I was having trouble fitting in, that I had needs that weren’t being met in school, but that we weren’t able to purchase. So she taught me to be self-sufficient instead. “Books are better than friends,” she told me at an early age, “because they’ll still be there for you when your friends aren’t.” And so my fortress of solitude had its foundations built not on Arctic ice and Kryptonian technology but on wood-pulp and ink. Even on days when I came home, my vision swimming from my head being shoved into the wall too hard after one of my ‘fitting-in’ expeditions went awry, I’d try to struggle my way through a book, the letters dancing and distorting before my eyes.

How many kids do you know who have to go get stitches from having their heads slammed into tables by their peers before they go to primary school? Now you know at least one.

Sure, maybe gifted kids do need help staying grounded, but we’re not going to get them there by axeing them at the knee so they don’t outgrow their peers. Maybe we need to reconsider our vitriol and our vehement anti-intellectualism. Maybe if we want to prevent a whole new generation from growing out to write blog-posts demanding that we get out of their elite, uncaring faces, we shouldn’t get all up in their faces in the first place? Callousness demands compassion, not some kind of callousness-chicken in which the first one to blink loses.

I mean, surely, the solution to smart-asses isn’t for them to stop being smart, but to stop being asses, right? How does being an ass to them help, except by making you, in comparison, a dumb-ass? Equality and egalitarianism are important, but we need to make sure that we’re levelling people together along the right axis. The solution to making smart-asses and dumb-asses equal shouldn’t be to just make everyone an ass.

11th hour edit: Boy, was this hard to write. I thought I would breeze through it in a lighter, more personal, sort of op-ed-y style, but in the end it made me stop and think at so many junctures that writing this actually took ages. I think I come out sounding more thoughtful and less assertive than I originally wanted to, due to all that reconsideration: I’m not sure what that means. I would have liked to authoritatively and venomously blast something at some point, but as I get older it’s become harder and harder to do. Too many angles to cover, too many valid alternative perspectives… I suppose it’s a good sign, that being smart doesn’t stop you from getting wiser, too, eventually.

“But You’re Catholic!”

I’ve heard this so many times that it’s come to mean quite the opposite: “I’m pretty sure you’re not actually Catholic.”

Granted, when I was younger, it was for more benign infractions. “You’re so rude. But you’re Catholic!” and “You drink so much. But you’re Catholic!”

These days, I hear it in connection with more contentious beliefs. “You support gay rights? But you’re Catholic!” So as much to clear my own head as anything else, I thought I’d set my thoughts in order in the most public and inadvisable way possible: on the Internet.

My poor decision-making skills have nothing to do with my religion.

What It Means
“Gay” is a weird adjective to use, really, and not just because of the “gay old time” ambiguity. It’s been used to describe such a wide spectrum of things (“gay rights”, “gay lifestyle”), even in the specific context of homosexuality, that it can come to mean just about anything, with the effect that two people who appear to be debating may actually be talking about completely different things. So I find it helpful at the outset to lay out what I really mean.

I support the right of people to receive equal treatment under the law. There. That’s all. That’s it.

What It Doesn’t Mean
No, I’m not in support of paedophilia, incest, bestiality, necrophilia, or the usual host of false equivalencies homosexual behaviour is usually lumped-in with. I’m not in support of anything involving minors, nor the absence of informed consent.

Can I just say: 377A is not only discriminatory, but it’s also stupid. It’s poorly-written! It’s not even specifically against anal or something. I can’t buttfuck a dude but I can buttfuck a chick? Hell, I can even get buttfucked by a chick and the law would be OK with it.

What does “gross indecency” mean, anyway? Does it mean that dudes just can’t do sex things with or around each other? What if two dudes sit in a room and jerk off to porn together? Straight porn, even? Does it matter if their balls touch? What about if they do the Dutch rudder? What if a bunch of dudes run a train on a chick, or spit roast her, or do some DP? Is that an act of gross indecency with another male person?

Hell, does that mean that gross indecency is OK if I’m with a chick? If it is, then what’s so gross or indecent about it, anyway?

In fact, all of the traditional sex taboo laws are weird and poorly-written. It’s wrong to penetrate a corpse with your penis! If you’re a guy! But it’s not illegal to penetrate a corpse with your finger, your arm up to the elbow, with a dildo, with a strap-on, with your tongue; it’s not illegal to sit on a corpse’s face and grind your muff into its face. 377, which addresses necrophilia, prohibits the penetration of a human corpse; 377B, which addresses bestiality, prohibits the penetration of a living animal. So I can fuck an animal if it’s dead? What the fuck?

Hey, let’s not just remove 377A. Let’s properly re-write all the weird sex parts of the penal code. Having these things on the books is embarrassing, man. It’s like having laws against witchcraft or something.

By the way, the Canadian law makes it illegal to pretend to use witchcraft. Apparently doing witchcraft for real is OK. Funnily enough, this might make Lawrence Khong a sort of double offender in Canada: if he thinks he’s doing real magic, he’s breaking a Leviticus taboo; if he knows he’s only pretending to do magic, he’s breaking that law.


“But You’re Catholic!”
The Church is on my side on this one, in fact.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

And no, don’t bother telling me that just discrimination is OK, because are you freaking kidding me.

So What Does That Mean?
The way I read it, it means that no Catholic of good conscience can abide discriminatory legislation. Legalising discrimination in no way makes it just. If a straight person enjoys a certain right or benefit under law, so should a gay person. If straight people can enjoy civil marriages, so should gay people; if straight parents get baby bonuses, so should gay ones; if straight couples with kids get preference when purchasing property, so should gay ones.

What It Doesn’t Mean
I think certain elements of various disenfranchised communities can go overboard when fighting for their rights. I think gay people suing churches to force them to conduct marriage services for them and similar infringements of the religious rights of others are unjust, and I don’t support them. The Church can and does withhold the sacraments for a multitude of reasons: not being in a state of grace, having unconfessed mortal sins on your conscience, being an unbeliever, being under some sort of ecclesiastical ban, and whatnot. If the Church can refuse communion to an unconfessed adulterer, it can definitely refuse a religious wedding service to gays.

Being recognised in a civil partnership, and receiving the various benefits that accrue thereto, is not the same thing as forcing a priest to perform an act he is obliged to consider inherently sinful, such as sanctifying a union his religion considers impossible. You should no more oblige a priest to perform a gay marriage than you should oblige a Catholic doctor to perform an abortion.

This is by no means to be extended to places of general business, or public services. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin; it doesn’t say that sinners can’t eat in restaurants or buy clothes or whatever.

But You’re Catholic!
Yes, yes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns homosexuality as “disordered”. The Bible makes it very clear that homosexuality is a sin.

However, at some point or the other, the Catholic Church and/or the Bible has/have also condemned a whole bunch of other things that are still legal. The Book of Leviticus in one chapter alone (19:28) condemns all of these legal things:

  • lying
  • taking the Lord’s name in vain
  • showing partiality to the poor or the wealthy
  • holding grudges
  • wear clothing woven of two different materials (my jeans are 50% cotton. Uh oh)
  • getting tattoos
  • cutting one’s beard
Uh ohhhhh. I think we can all agree that, with that getup, Mr Khong really needs a beard.

Shut up. My point is that sin and crime must be considered separate in order for the separation of powers to work. The Church and State must remain separate. Our postcolonial burden is that many of our state apparati were designed along religiously-oriented lines. In instances where this clearly harms nobody, perhaps we can adopt a more philosophical and sedentary position, but in instances which clearly promote discrimination, I don’t think we can afford phlegmatism. Some things can be both sinful and criminal (like murder, duh), but not everything has to be, and some things can’t be criminalised no matter how sinful they are (like premarital sex, for example. Or wearing clothing woven of two different materials or whatever) because of how needlessly punitive that would be to society.

The Catholic Church condemns divorce and abortion, but yet these are not only legal in so-called conservative Singapore but actually more accessible than in many so-called liberal countries. Why shouldn’t we adopt the same attitude towards homosexuality? Is anything gained by criminalising huge swathes of the population for victimless acts?

If Christians can enforce their prejudices against homosexuality on non-Christians, what’s to stop Muslims enforcing haram on non-Muslims? Or any religion oppressing atheists? The separation of Church — all churches — from State is a necessity. If you’re a dude and you think homosexuality is a sin, stop banging other dudes.

Pet peeve
The rhetoric and the euphemisms. “Pro-family”. Good God, y’all. What does “the family” mean anyway? People espouse some ideal of a nuclear family that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been anywhere or at anytime some kind of ubiquitous thing.

I roll my eyes at arguments in favour of ‘tradition’ because ‘traditionalists’ tend to be ignoramuses. ‘Tradition’ is uninstructive and imprecise. I greatly prefer history, and some modicum of historical knowledge tends to poke huge holes in any kind of traditionalist argument. What do ‘traditional’ ideas of family and sexuality look like in Asia anyway?

Societies that were never Christianised, such as Thailand and Japan, tend to have longer and more open histories of homosexual activity and acceptance of various gendered states and sexual preferences. India has long recognised the existence of an intersex or third-gender community.


Polygamy was widely-practiced in Chinese communities, up till relatively recently. Even family bonds meant more than just blood-relationship: my father’s sister was given away to an Indian family to raise. The cookie-cutter ideal has never been at any time or any place universally prevalent, nor does it deserve to be sanctified as if it had been, or should be.

Arguments for the preservation of the status quo, for no reason other than inertia and the maintenance of that status quo, are examples of the sunk-cost fallacy written large, and have little to recommend them.

It’s odd that we’ve tried to resurrect ‘kampung spirit’ or gotong royong, but at the same time cleave to Puritan standards and definitions of the family unit. Singapore’s success was built on people making the best of a bad situation and finding common ground in adversity, instead of thin-slicing their communities even further over constructed and artificial ideas of family. What is gained by drawing lines in the sand?

Singapore, if you want stronger families, stronger community ties, and more kiddies running around, maybe you’d be better off trying to fight divorce and abortion, huh? Or cutting work hours and raising wages and social safety-nets so parents can spend more time with their kids instead of outsourcing parenting to domestic workers and schools? Or helping parents with kids, regardless of their sexual preference, give their children the support and education they need to grow up healthy, smart, and happy?

Hell, I think I’ve learned more about family from Disney than I have from any number of self-ordained pastors.

It means nobody gets left behind.

A Song Before Sunset

The Mr Lee of my youth

I grew up in the shadow of Mr Lee Kuan Yew; at times, almost literally, since we live a stone’s throw away from his home. It’s hard to describe how you relate to someone like that. My mother spoke of him with reverence, and my father, respect: rare occurrences, in our household. Whenever she brought him up, my mother would also add that he had gone to Cambridge, and give me a significant look.

Of course, anyone to whom all credit is given (and there’s an argument to be made that we under-rate the efforts of Lee’s contemporaries) will also get slapped with all the blame, and as an angry young — and not so young, now — man, it was very easy for me to turn Lee into the author of all my discontent. Over time, though, especially time spent working for the government, I’ve come to sympathise a lot more with the younger Mr Lee, who tilted at windmills and slew giants, and wasn’t afraid to reap a crop of unpopularity in order to do so.

Right now, social media types are swarming all over his history, and I suppose 2015 will be the year that the Lee Kuan Yew tribute becomes the Merlion poem of every aspiring Internet writer. So how would I choose to remember Mr Lee?

Probably in a way he wouldn’t appreciate: as a romantic.

No, not that sort

When I read that story about Lee the lover, I couldn’t help but wonder what other sides of him the man had. Singapore knew Lee the leader, who carried a hatchet in his bag and lurked in cul-de-sacs with his knuckle-dusters, the dirty street-fighter who wasn’t afraid to turn the genteel, Queensbury rules of the political arena into a brawl for livelihood and reputation. We remember him for his ruthless pragmatism, for his focus on growing the numbers, but we don’t often consider how much that relentless belief in endless and unlimited improvement must have cost him.

We sing that there was a time when people said that Singapore wouldn’t make it, except for him. What sort of mind, what kind of resolve, what manner of faith does that take, to hope against the world’s wisdom?

He cried when we were born, he harangued us when we strayed, he grew mellow in our current needy, greedy adolescence. Can his own children claim so much? How many of his sleepless nights can Hsien Loong and his siblings claim, and how many did he give to Singapore unstintingly? How many of the wrinkles on his face are theirs, and how many ours? What child had what father who believed so unreservedly in his potential, in his

If we remember him as the Father of Singapore, as it seems inevitable that we must, let us do so not because of the claim that he created us, but because he loved us as a father should, even when he shouldn’t have.

Mr Lee, thank you. Not just for what you’ve done, but for what it must have cost you.

Tuition culture in Singapore: abundance and anxiety

So, some interesting noises from the echo chamber:
hengsweekeatFrom the article Tuition Culture has to go, say MPs reported by Today Online.

Despite government efforts, Singaporeans still have the mentality that getting good grades is the ticket to securing good jobs and a bright future, MPs noted.”

I wonder what efforts the MPs are referring to here. What exactly is the problem that the government thinks needs fixing? Lots of amateur laymen proposing solutions in Parliament — why does everyone think that problems in the education system need to be fixed with education policy? How about labour policy? The article brings up a number of possibilities, but I suspect that Parliament is having too much fun playing amateur problem-solver to successfully identify what the real problem is.

(1): Tuition is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good grades.

There’s some wishful thinking here, I think. As long as tuition yields measurable improvements towards a student’s educational outcomes, there’s going to be a major incentive to tutor the living daylights out of the kid. If you want to decouple the perceived link between tuition and success, you’re going to have to make grades dependent on things that tuition teachers can’t easily address.

There’s some hope in the works: across the board we can see a greater emphasis on experiential learning and new methods of assessment, including collaborative work and work assessed over a period of time. That’s encouraging.

On the other hand, we’re still besotted with the idea of a national exam. I think standardised assessment definitely has a role to play, but does this assessment have to take the form of an all-or-nothing sit-down writing exercise?

Surely there’s some room to spread out a student’s ultimate academic evaluation across both examined and constructed work. Set national examinations for baseline competencies in things like languages, mathematics, and basic scientific knowledge: I think multiple-choice questions in the vein of the LSATs/TOEFL might be good here, because when you’re looking for assessing baseline competency, you’re testing a kid on basics which have easy yes/no, right/wrong answers: grammar, arithmetic, and scientific facts and axioms aren’t negotiable. Make these tests have an extremely compressed spread of possible results, maybe only reporting a result of Pass/Fail. Make it possible for someone who has mastered basic ability in language, mathematics, and science, who takes the test diligently, to get a perfect score.

Beyond that, if you want to test mastery of advanced knowledge, move away from sit-down exams. Require them to do some independent research for science, write a paper or explore some theoretical problem for mathematics, and create a viable text for languages. Write a magazine article in Mandarin; film a series of public service announcements for English. That sort of thing. The goal should be for students to demonstrate authentic mastery, not rote-learning, which means being able to apply whatever they think they’ve learnt to solve real problems and accomplish real tasks.

Let them sit for the ‘A’-levels if they want to, if they want to go to a British university or something. But surely we can do better, especially since the ‘A’-levels are tottering even in their country of origin.

So only the very weak will need additional help in order to demonstrate baseline competency (in which case we shouldn’t begrudge them tuition, extra consultations, or professional therapy if they need it), and nobody will be able to tuition their way past a live task. If the latter forces students to seek greater exposure to live problem solving through internships, engagement with social issues, participating in civil society organisations, and so on in order to acquire problem-solving experience, surely that’s all for the good, and shouldn’t be considered ‘tuition’.

(2): Academic competitiveness is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good jobs

The civil service really needs to lead the way here. When the government, the largest and most influential employer in the country, mandates a massive pay differential between polytechnic and university graduates, they don’t really have any kind of right to complain that people are taking on unnecessary stress. Even in the political arena, the academic credentials of candidates seem more important than their track record (which in any case is largely inseparable from their academic credentials), their charisma, or most importantly, their ethical intelligence.

(3): ‘Good’ jobs are the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to have a bright future

The fact is, there is a huge and real gap between jobs that Singaporeans consider ‘good’, and everything else. The problem here is inequality more than education: when a teacher, nurse, or social worker, who is in their field just as qualified as, say, an investment banker, who works just as hard (if not harder) and for as long hours (if not longer) earns so much less, who can fault parents and students for obsessing over the few disproportionately ‘good’ jobs there are?

What makes a job ‘good’ to a Singaporean? Most Singaporeans want jobs that provide both low risk and high earning power, and by my observation, involve as little inconvenience as possible: many people seem to have a phobia of doing things like working overseas for extended amounts of time, which I suspect comes from how thoroughly indoctrinated many of us are with Singaporean exceptionalism and the belief that the rest of the world is a seething hive of poor infrastructure and high crime rates.

How many people consider interest, passion, or impact when they evaluate the ‘goodness’ of a job? I dunno what my generation of working adults thinks, but as someone who’s worked with teenagers quite extensively regarding talent development and career discernment, I can tell you that it’s a vanishingly small number. And the more safely-ensconced they are in the academic environment of our local schools, and the more potential they have to score well, the less likely they are to consider such factors. It’s a sad state of affairs when our very best and brightest aspire towards the least risky and most boring jobs possible, simply because those jobs provide the most security and earning power.

Maybe if we thought differently about our careers, and were enabled to make career decisions without the everpresent fear of failure and incipient poverty, we wouldn’t put our kids through the career-wringer as early as preschool.

Which brings me to the thing that the government isn’t talking about, which I consider the main problem:

(4): The future is the problem – your confidence in your future and your freedom to pursue happiness shouldn’t be dependent on industry field or elite education

My take on things is that every Singaporean lives in fear, a fear we’ve been infected with since we were kids. Every Singaporean lives in fear of failure, of poverty, and of the social stigma of being a dependent. We’ve been taught as students that a good citizen contributes to society instead of leeches off of it, and I think this sort of thinking is very elegantly fostered to absolve the government of the responsibility to provide social security and a minimum guaranteed standard of living.

As youths we were all told that nobody owes us a living, and that Singapore as a society exists on the knife’s edge of improbability due to our lack of natural resources and an economy that is entirely dependent on our ability to sell our labour to the most attractive foreign bidders. We are predisposed to think of ourselves as potential units of labour: the oft-repeated refrain that “Singapore has no natural resources but only human resources” serves to get us used to the idea that our labour is something to be marketed and monetised and exploited to the full.

We don’t consider the impact on our psychology when that idea also includes the assumption that our labour and our effort is ultimately expendable, something to be consumed, that our energy and our effort should ultimately be used up. The Singapore government is a little bit weird in that it considers its population and their labour resources, but doesn’t consider that all resources are susceptible to depletion if overexploited. But with the increasing levels of burnout, stress, and depression among young people, and the high turnover-rates in some of the most desirable jobs in Singapore, it’s quite clear that we are overexploiting our labour-force.

The idea that our lives are just resources, fuel for the furnace that keeps this clunky locomotive chugging, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Even well-employed Singaporeans live in fear. Hell, I do. My anxiety and angst stem from the dissatisfaction of thinking that I am expected to work my life away for no real reward and no lasting satisfaction, and certainly no security. We work ever-longer hours, for fast-eroding pay, that vanishes into nothing no matter how much we save because of the pathetic interest rate, and although we pay more and more tax on our mayfly wealth, we keep getting told that the government isn’t obliged to spend that tax money on our benefit. Instead, we are roundly scolded for being dependent on handouts and subsidies. How dare we demand that our tax money be spent on us, instead of squirrelled-away!

Maybe people are so anxious and so grasping and so acquisitive because they’re essentially heartsick of the idea of being forever trapped in a neck-and-neck race against entropy. Everyone is desperate to earn as much as they can to hoard against the day when earning is no longer possible for them. Maybe we hope that being civilised involves more than a greater variety of toys to spend our money on. Maybe Singaporeans look at senior citizens, who’ve worked hard all their lives in jobs that once upon a time might have been considered ‘good’, who now have to sell tissue paper, wash toilets, collect litter, and wait on tables in their golden years, and fear for their own future.

I can’t help but feel that a ‘bright’ future, at least as far as a safe and satisfying retirement goes, shouldn’t have anything to do with what job you held down or how well you did in school. At the very least, everyone should be able to look forward to a future in which their retirement savings are not tied to the performance of the property market, in which their medical bills aren’t an existential threat, in which they don’t have to beg the children of those who can afford them for enough money to take the increasingly-mercenary, privatised train home.

Dear The Government, if you want to stem tuition culture, you’ll have to address the bigger problem of insecurity culture, of siege-mentality culture, of hand-to-mouth culture.

You’ll need to provide universal and comprehensive healthcare, not because people deserve it or not, but because (a) we can afford it (we spend three times more on a peacetime army, for crying out loud) and (b) someone dying of preventable causes because he can’t afford treatment is barbaric and unworthy of any kind of society that holds itself civilised.

You’ll need to provide a universal and guaranteed pension for retirees to ensure that nobody has to gamble on the stock market, the property market, or the largesse of their children or the children of others when they’re old. It’s pretty obvious that you think pensions are important, because you’ve all given yourselves pensions: you just don’t think that pensions are important to other people. Raising the retirement rate and making seniors more employable doesn’t fix the problem: helping more seniors work into their twilight years isn’t helping because nobody should be forced to work to make end’s meet when they’re that old. Yes, people live longer now, but just because I’ll live till 90 instead of 70 doesn’t mean that at 60 I’ll have the energy of a 40-year-old and should therefore keep on working: it just means that when I die, I’ll be that much more tired, have suffered that much more from an ailing body, and will hopefully be that much more eager to have everything over and done with.

You’ll need to provide affordable housing options for people who don’t feel like going into thirty years of debt in exchange for a rental that you call ownership. Newsflash: I don’t care what real estate agents say, it’s not real ownership if it has an expiry date after which I have to give everything back to you.

You’ll need to come up with some kind of long-term plan for Singapore that isn’t merely based on increasing factors of production, including labour. There are natural limitations to our population. If I think about progress, I want the Singapore of the future to be able to enjoy twice as much prosperity with half the number of active workers; trends suggest the opposite is much more likely.

You’ll need to start making Singaporeans see globalisation as less of a vulnerability and more of an opportunity. If people are flocking here for work, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be flocking elsewhere: Singaporeans are modern, well-educated, and hard-working. If not for the fact that our parochial sense of exceptionalism and the entrenched racism of our constructed history make us pathologically afraid of learning new languages and living and working outside the country, we would be hugely competitive overseas. Of course, in order to bring this about you’ll have to stop using shills to blame the West for everything, and you’ll have to publicly refute Goh Chok Tong’s extremely parochial ‘stayers/quitters’ rhetoric, which I’m not confident you’re actually capable of doing.

You’ll need to understand that growth of all sorts has limits, and start recognising the shape of our maturing economy. I personally think that the steady-state economy is a rad idea.

You can’t raise generations of Singaporeans on fear, on the myth of self-sufficiency, on the axiom that our economy and way of life are based on our ability to redline ourselves for as long as possible as units of labour, and then complain that people are too stressed about their future and that they don’t appreciate “government efforts”. You can’t tell everyone that you owe them nothing, that they have to earn, save, and invest enough to defend themselves against a rising tide of consumerism, materialism, and squeezed space, and then ask why kids aren’t taking the time to grow up holistically, why parents are grinding their kids to the bone on the mill of academic excess, why everyone forces themselves to aspire to the very, very few jobs in our unequal job market that will allow them to make that much money.

Maybe when we don’t have to fear that following our passions will lead us to the poorhouse or, in modern Singaporean parlance, the old-age home in Johor Bahru that Khaw Boon Wan thinks we should send Ah Kong to, then you’ll see people willing to consider alternative pathways to success and a more diverse, forgiving education system.

But not now.

I’m anticipating that in my lifetime, my lifespan isn’t going to be limited by science or infrastructure but by my own personal finances. I’m anticipating that I’ll work harder, retire later, and enjoy less in terms of long-term financial stability than my parents.

I’m anticipating that if I could pay some hack to tutor my child such that he can study and work overseas and avoid all that shit, I will.

You see, people complain about tuition not because it’s ineffective but because it’s too effective, and unfairly so. It’s paying to win. You know what happens to people who can’t afford to compete in pay-to-win games? They don’t play.

I’ll beg people to take my money just so my kid can grow up with a different set of anticipations and expectations. And I anticipate that if I can’t afford to give my children a better life, and better expectations, than what I’ve got, I’m just not going to have them.

Hey, cheer up, Singapore government! Kids are now so unaffordable that practically nobody’s having them! By the next generation, you won’t have to worry about tuition because children will become obsolete!

EDIT: It’s come to my attention that this article has become greatly more popular than I ever anticipated. I’ve made a number of edits in the interest of tact and tonal appropriateness for a larger audience. The main substantive — claims, examples, suggestions — remains unchanged.